Standout design. Check. Large, full-HD display. Check. Top-notch hardware. Check. 13-megapixel camera. Check. Sony’s latest smartphone, the Xperia Z, has all the makings of a flagship. Add the capability of letting you tweet from the shower, and you may have something special in your hands. Yes, the device is impervious to both water and dust — a feature that’s certainly not unique but still, a rarity in a mainstream flagship device.
The Xperia Z arrives at a time when the smartphone segment witnesses its annual churn. The weeks soon after CES and MWC, when most manufacturers have spilt the beans on what they’ll be offering in the near future, is perhaps the best time of the year if you’re in the market for a new smartphone. If you know what’s just arrived and what’s coming, you can decide whether to splurge or hang on to that cash. Let’s find out if the Sony Xperia Z is worth splurging on or not.
Design and hardware
Xperia Z hardly feels comfortable in the hand, thanks to the blocky design, and its size doesn’t help things either.
As far as the design is concerned, the Xperia Z looks good in a minimalistic, understated sort of a way. Following a design language dubbed “OmniBalance” by Sony, there are absolutely no curves at all, and what you have in your hands in a flat rectangular slab. This blocky design is the reason behind our main quibble with this device — it hardly feels comfortable in the hand, especially when held for an extended period of time, and its size doesn’t help things either.
Our review unit came in white, but it’s also available in black and purple hues. The front is all screen, surrounded by a black border, while the back is coated with glass, reminiscent of the iPhone 4S. The rear camera lens is slightly recessed, and that should hopefully protect it from scratches. Alas, the same cannot be said for the glass-coated rear, since it’s not only a fingerprint magnet but prone to scratches as well. The battery is non-removable, and all ports are covered by rubber-lined tabs to keep water and dust out. In fact, the smartphone confirms to the IPX5/7 and IP5X ratings for water- and dust-resistance respectively. The top is where you’ll find the headphone socket, while the micro-USB and microSD orifices are placed on the left. The right side of the phone is home to the tab-covered microSIM slot that uses a plastic tray you’re required to pull out. On the same side is what’s possibly the most notable design highlight — a large, circular power/sleep button that’s fashioned out of machined aluminum, along with a volume rocker made from the same material.
The 5-inch, 443 ppi 1080p display makes use of Sony’s Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2, and as such, is sharp and vibrant. Text appears razor sharp, images pop out and videos are a treat to watch. That said, it leaves a bit to be desired as far as viewing angles are concerned, leaving it a rung below the only other full-HD smartphone display we’ve seen so far — that on the HTC Butterfly. The Butterfly’s Super LCD 3 display also trumps Sony’s in terms of sunlight visibility. Considering that the screen is supposed to be one of the mainstays of this phone, its real-life performance is a tad disappointing, especially when compared to competition.
In keeping with the phone’s flagship positioning, the headline-grabbing 13-megapixel camera offers a host of settings and tweaks for image and video capture. Boasting Sony’s new Exmos RS sensor, the camera is capable of HDR video in addition to HDR stills. The shooting menu offers everything from burst mode to Sweep Panorama, and delving into the settings will give you control over ISO, white balance, metering, exposure, et al. Then there’s a Superior Auto mode that takes control over the settings and optimizes shooting for 36 different scenes, utilizing a combination of scene recognition, HDR and noise reduction. In practice, the latter worked pretty well, doing a commendable job of producing great shots with minimum fuss, especially with good ambient light. Low-light shooting is possibly this camera’s Achilles’ heel, with results that aren’t consistent and riddled with noise.
Click to open the photos in full resolution.
In terms of video performance, the captures in daytime are very good, but like the stills, low-light videos tend to get a tad noisy. HDR videos do deliver usable results for the most part, but sometimes end up looking slightly unrealistic.
Minimalistic skin on top of Android 4.1.2 Jelly bean doesn’t intrude too much if you prefer a stock Android experience
The Xperia Z runs Android 4.1.2 — being slightly behind the curve in terms of the latest release from Mountain View, but we can’t really complain there. Since there are no hardware keys, the interface makes use of virtual buttons for access to the usual Android functions of back, home and task manager. Sony adds a skin on top — one that’s minimalistic and doesn’t intrude too much if you prefer a stock Android experience. It mainly includes a custom lock screen that provides quick access to the camera and the music player, and also offers a nice window blinds-like animation effect when you unlock.
Then there are connectivity toggles available in the notification bar, while pre-loaded stuff includes McAfee Mobile Security, a car app, a trial version of Wisepilot for navigation and Socialife. The latter is a RSS aggregator that can also pull in your feeds from the likes of Facebook and Twitter. An interesting addition is “Small apps”, accessed via the task manager virtual key. Similar to mini apps that Samsung offers on some of its Galaxy devices, these are handy utilities that pop up as small windows atop anything else you may be doing on the smartphone. The default ones included cover a calculator, notes, recorder and timer, and more can be installed through the Play Store. The smartphone has a rich suite of multimedia apps. Both the music player (aptly monikered Walkman) and the movie player are capable of pulling in media info from the internet, apart from offering DLNA sharing. For audio, you can enable a ClearAudio+ sound enhancement, or apply preset or custom EQ effects. The stock Android keyboard is replaced by the Xperia keyboard, which offers word prediction and correction, ability to input text using sliding gestures much like Swype, and customization options akin to SwiftKey. In our usage, it worked quite well.
Performance and battery life
Inside lurks a 1.5GHz Qualcomm S4 Pro quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, an Adreno 320 GPU, and 16GB of storage augmentable via the aforementioned microSD slot. Connectivity options cover everything from USB OTG to DLNA , Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC. These are top-of-the-rung specs, and reflect in its performance. There’s no lag whatsoever, and everything you throw at it is handled with élan — apps, games, web browsing and multimedia playback. Smooth and responsive, the Xperia Z is a pleasure to use. However, it tends to run hot if you play graphics-intensive games or use it for GPS navigation. The sealed 2,330 mAh battery got us through a day with medium usage — with 3G and one push email account enabled, about half an hour of web browsing, checking messages and Whatsapp, along with another half hour spent on voice calls. You’re basically looking at nightly recharges unless you use it heavily for gaming and / or media, in which case you might need a top-up recharge earlier. There’s a Stamina mode that extends battery life by disabling mobile data when the screen is off, and you can specify a whitelist of apps that circumvent this rule so you don’t miss important notifications such as emails.
At a time when flagship smartphones are crossing the Rs. 40k (~$750) barrier without too many eyebrows being raised, the Xperia Z’s Rs 38,990 tag is a pleasant surprise and one that works well in its favor. Its arch nemesis and closest rival (at present in India), the HTC’s similarly specced Butterfly costs about Rs 7,000 more, but we aren’t sure if that’s too big a margin to be a deterrent, especially considering this is the top end of the phone segment. Add the threat posed by upcoming heavyweights such as the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S IV, and suddenly the Xperia Z’s foibles start appearing more significant. And this is also the reason why its water-resistance also becomes extremely noteworthy and gives it its claim to fame. That’s not to say that the Xperia Z isn’t a compelling and capable smartphone otherwise — it definitely is a device to shortlist if you’re in the market for a high-end smartphone, especially considering its comparatively reasonable pricing. Also keeping in mind that the festival of colors is just around the corner, this device should be perfect for capturing some action shots of the wet and color-laden variety. Oh, and our last tweet… that was sent from the shower. Think about it.
Overall Rating: 8/10